Football: Avenue trek down the nostalgia trail: Phil Shaw looks ahead to Saturday's FA Cup encounter between two old rivals from the era of baggy shorts and laced footballs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM near and far they come, like visitors to a ruined monastery, to linger amid the rust, weeds and crumbling masonry of what was once home to Bradford Park Avenue.

Some seek out the spot where they used to stand, in the days when trolley buses carried the crowds from the city centre. Many bring cameras, hoping perhaps to capture the ghostly blur of Kevin Hector or some other hero from Avenue's field of dreams.

While it may sound like Compo meets the Hovis ad, this is an act of worship wherein matches are recited like a litany. Over the coming days the terrace talk will be of Avenue and Accrington Stanley, forever twinned by their untimely deaths yet now preparing to prove the power of football reincarnation in an FA Cup second qualifying round reunion in Lancashire on Saturday.

Their last competitive meeting, on May Day in 1961, is still vivid down Memory Avenue. Then, as now, the team were on an eight-match unbeaten run. But whereas the present side's sights are set modestly upon improving on seventh place in the Bass North West Counties League by beating Maine Road tonight, their forbears were already celebrating elevation to the Third Division of the Football League.

'So it is promotion at last,' the programme writer gushed. 'Park Avenue last Monday was as happy a place to be as any in the country. Years of strife and disappointment were forgotten in the hour of victory.' And so it went on: 'Most points in 33 years . . . increased gates . . . floodlights next season.'

When Accrington folded the following winter, not to re-appear until 1968, warnings of a domino effect seemed more pertinent to debt-stricken Bradford City than to Avenue. Even when they were relegated in 1963 there was the consolation of the emergence of Hector, who was to score 44 goals in his final season with Avenue before going on to play for Derby and England.

Without him, Avenue won just 23 matches in four years before failing to secure re-election to the League in 1970. After four seasons in the Northern Premier League, during which a deep financial crisis had led them to sell up and move in with City, the 67-year-old former First Division club were wound up.

Among the 50 shareholders to witness the last rites was Tim Clapham. As the years passed, with only a Sunday park team keeping Avenue's name alive, he resolved to chronicle their rich if chequered history. In collaboration with a local journalist, Malcolm Hartley, he began work on The Avenue.

Their hardback homage, published in 1987, not only bowled Geoffrey Boycott off the top of Bradford's best-seller list but also acted as a catalyst in a campaign to revive the club. By late summer the next year, musty green-and-white scarves were brought out of mothballs as a born-again Avenue resumed active service.

Clapham, now Avenue's PRO, takes up the story. 'We were operating from very basic facilities at the old Manningham Mills ground, in the West Riding County Amateur League, against the likes of Pudsey Liberal and Salts Reserves. Some people said we were besmirching the name and should have let things lie.'

Undaunted, Avenue moved up to the Central Midlands League and in with the Leeds-based Bramley rugby league club. After one season they joined the NW Counties and the semi-professional 'pyramid'. In theory, they are 'only' four promotions away from regaining League status.

Three years ago they recruited Jim Mackay as manager. A Fifer who had the misfortune to be a left-sided player with Leeds in the heyday of Gray, Cooper and Hunter, he had turned out for Avenue in their previous non-League life. He recalls his first game in charge. 'I heard this booming, critical voice behind the dug-out. I remembered the same voice from when I played for Avenue.

'That's the great thing about Avenue. The fans still act as if they're a League club. You don't get that fanaticism with other teams at our level. They are driven by a vision of getting back into the League. That has to be tempered with realism, though this club has not been backward in grasping opportunities since re-forming.'

While crowds are low, with only 161 watching Avenue beat Belper in the last round, both Mackay and Clapham maintain numbers would multiply if they could find a suitable base in Bradford. Sadly, the chances of returning to Park Avenue, once a minor masterpiece of football architecture where a cricket school now encroaches on to a third of the pitch, are virtually nil.

Still, someone up there likes them. The Accrington tie, a trip into a twilight zone where the Third (North) lives on, has given Avenue publicity and credibility. 'It seems to have caught the imagination,' Clapham said. 'I've had calls from people I've not heard from in a long time.'

In his fantasies Avenue knock out City en route to a third-round derby with Leeds. 'And perhaps three matches with Manchester United after that,' he added, a nostalgic reference to Avenue's exploits in 1949, when they took the Cup holders to two replays before a total of 182,000 spectators. Two of the games were at Maine Road, the venue which inspired the formation of tonight's visitors and the scene of Avenue's finest hour and a half.

In 1946, when ties were contested over two legs, they lost 3-1 at home to Manchester City. In the return, an Avenue side including Len Shackleton and Ron Greenwood won 8-2, a scoreline made all the more staggering by the presence in City's goal of England's Frank Swift. Mackay's men won by the same margin at Penrith last weekend, their 6-0 success being an all-time record away win and evidence that the club has a future as well as a past. But lest the faithful get carried away about prospects at the Crown Ground, where Stanley play in the HFS Loans League now that Peel Park is a children's playing-field, history holds a warning.

Avenue's worst-ever away defeat happened 37 years ago this very Saturday. Seven-nil, it finished. At Accrington.

(Photographs omitted)